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December 1998

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Teaching in Japan
a High-Status, High-Stress Profession

In this issue, we introduce a new feature, College Members Abroad, that will give Ontario College of Teachers members in other countries an opportunity to tell teachers back home something about their experiences in other education systems. Here are some observations from an English immersion math classroom.

By Wayne Burnett

The Japanese term sensei (teacher) is a term of respect, also used for doctors and others of high social rank. Perhaps it is not surprising that, with the amount of work Japanese society expects of teachers, the emphasis on formal schooling, and the high achievement levels shown on international tests, teachers are held in high regard.

At Katoh Gakuen, where I teach math in an English immersion program, it is interesting to see how this is played out in the dress code. Most male Japanese teachers arrive at school wearing a tie. Most then immediately change into a sweat suit – unless it is a parent observation day.

I think this is done to maintain the professional image of the teacher on the way to work, but then to become part of the class family while at school. While students come to school in their uniforms, they too change, wearing physical education outfits most of the day. Wearing sweats also makes it easier to play with children before school and during recess. We are required to eat lunch with our students and go outside with them during recess, primarily to play with them.

Presumably, along with status comes increased responsibility, real or perceived. I have been fascinated by recent incidents of serious crimes committed by students, including murder and manslaughter. In several cases, the principal of the school the student attended held a news conference to apologize for the behaviour of the student, even if the incident happened off school grounds. Rarely did parents seem to be the focus of journalistic investigation. The principals were expected to re-double their efforts to help teachers develop better relationships with their students.


School can be a high-stress environment for students. Many Canadians have read about the examination hell that Japanese students go through. Many go to cram school after school three or more times a week and often on Saturday afternoons. They may also indulge in learning a musical instrument or taking ballet or karate lessons. They may even squeeze in time for a hobby or just playing with friends.

Teachers share much of this stress. Parents and administrators see good, caring teaching as the key to solving most student achievement problems. Thus, key stress periods in the life of a student also affect the teachers.

Getting into a good junior high, senior high and university is crucial to upward mobility in Japan. Therefore, teachers in the grades prior to an entrance examination (Grades 6, 9 and 12) face an inordinate amount of pressure as they try to make sure all their students are admitted to good institutions.

Ironically, it is unclear to me how much credit I can take when my students do well. After all, what is the impact of the cram schools? There is already a measure of self-selection in attending a private school. Do the cram schools give further advantages to my students? Do they help because students get more teaching or hinder because they are exhausted when they finally get around to doing my homework?

Life as an English immersion teacher in Japan does not completely mirror this reality. For some students, the foreign teachers will always be second banana. Without strong Japanese language skills, the foreign teachers are often out of the loop at school. While the pay is better than that of many conversational English jobs, it hardly makes up for the Saturdays, Sundays and summers in school.

There is a built-in accountability system for immersion teachers that adds significantly to the stress level. Low achievement in the Japanese-language test, which follows the English-language test in math and science, is often ascribed to weaknesses in the immersion teacher’s delivery. Unfortunately, the teacher turnover rate at Katoh reflects the challenges and difficulties of this position.

Despite the long hours and the pressures, teaching at Katoh is interesting and rewarding. The twin opportunities of participating in the growth of this Canadian invention of immersion and of getting an insider view into Japanese teaching and learning make up for the two Saturdays a month I teach.

Well, almost.

College member Wayne Burnett teaches Grade 6 math at a private school in Japan. He taught for the North York Board of Education and was a member of the research staff of the Royal Commission on Learning. He can be contacted at